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Winnipeg Journal: Winnipeg’s Treaty Payments: Meager Reminder of a Painful History

But the treaties were not mere contracts to exchange land, historians say. They were part of a broader strategy to erase indigenous identity and autonomy, as laws gave the federal government power over the First Nations’ finances and religious practices, and created a network of residential schools where aboriginal children were forcibly sent.

The residential school program was described as “cultural genocide” by a 2015 government commission that examined the history and impact of the schools. Its findings led Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to promise a “total renewal” of Canada’s relationship with the First Nations, and to hold reconciliation talks with 300 aboriginal communities.

Even as these efforts press forward, however, many people of the First Nations suffer from disproportionately high rates of poverty, unemployment, suicide, violence, incarceration and addiction.

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Andrew Bouchie, 28, of Bloodvein First Nation, waiting for his girlfriend to collect her payment. Credit Aaron Vincent Elkaim for The New York Times

The scars of aboriginal discrimination are etched deeply here in Winnipeg, home to Canada’s largest urban indigenous population.

The metropolis was built on treaty territory, and was the nation’s most violent city in 2015. Most aboriginal residents live in the North End, an area dotted with ramshackle single-room-occupancy buildings and homemade missing-person signs taped to bar doors.

On a visit to the treaty payment event held during seven days at the end of June, indigenous people young and old, many from Winnipeg, made their way to a large tent set up for the occasion in a downtown park.

Inside the tent, government employees sat behind picnic tables draped in Canadian flags, checking identification before handing over new five-dollar bills. On another table sat a mounted replica of a treaty from the 19th century, its delicate calligraphy barely legible.

Nearly everyone standing in line was collecting several years’ worth of payments. Many said treaty days were a chance to see friends and fulfill their part of a sacred obligation signed by their ancestors.

“It’s not all about the money,” said Marina Petri, 71, who collects every eight years. “I’m proud of being an Indian and this is a chance to see my people.”

Gerald McIvor, 54, a native rights activist, collected nine years’ worth of payments. Originally from the Sandy Bay First Nation, a reserve on the western shore of Lake Manitoba, he explained that for many indigenous families, especially those living on impoverished reserves, treaty payments, though modest, can help make ends meet.

“Even though it’s five dollars, for you, your spouse and five or six kids, it can bring a little bit of money,” he said.

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Canadians participating in a powwow during National Aboriginal Day on June 21 in Winnipeg. Credit Aaron Vincent Elkaim for The New York Times

But the free payments contribute to a devastating culture of economic reliance on the government, he added. “The web of dependency is so perpetuated that a lot of people on reserve actually think welfare is a treaty right,” he said.

Many indigenous people say the Canadian government and First Nations were supposed to share the land and its economic benefits, and criticize the government for depriving aboriginal communities of the billions in natural resources extracted from treaty territory.

“After everything Canada has taken from native people, we should be getting 5,000 dollars instead of five,” said Marcel Guiboche, 72, a retired social worker who recalled being regularly beaten and sexually abused during his years in residential school.

Still, he came for the money out of principle. “I come and get it because they owe me.”

In 2016, around 579,000 First Nation people were eligible to collect annuities stipulated in treaties signed between 1850 and 1921, according to Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada, the department that oversees the payments.

Last year, the department distributed around 1.9 million Canadian dollars, or $ 1.5 million, at more than 360 treaty payment events nationwide. Still, more than 16 million Canadian dollars in total annuity payments had never been claimed by the end of last year.

Lawsuits aimed at forcing the government to increase the payments to reflect changes in purchasing power have been dismissed by Canadian courts on legal grounds.

Just nine days before coming for his treaty money, Brandon Richards, 32, had been incarcerated in Manitoba, in a prison where aboriginal inmates are disproportionately represented.

“I heard about these payments in prison,” said Mr. Richards, who was released after serving a 14-year sentence. His face, neck and chest covered in tattoos, he was still unused to his newfound freedom and slightly overwhelmed by the crowd.

“It’s kind of trippy being around all these people,” he said, before collecting 125 Canadian dollars in cash — 25 years’ worth of unclaimed payments — which he said he planned to spend on a bicycle.

Source: NYT > World

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